Do you feel like you were pushed into taking care of your parents or siblings when you were only a child yourself? That you became an adult before you were ready for the role?
If you’re nodding, you may have been parentified. Being a “little parent” involves excessive responsibility or emotional burden that can impact a child’s development.
That said, it’s important to remember that some responsibility is a good thing. Helping out a parent on occasion and at the right level helps a child believe in themselves and their ability to one day also be an adult.
Let’s take a closer look at how and when the line into parentification is crossed.
In the typical order of things, parents give and children receive. Yes, sometimes — especially in the early morning hours when your baby is teething — the giving can seem never-ending.
But in general, parents are expected to give their children unconditional love and to take care of their physical needs (food, shelter, daily structure). Emotionally secure children whose physical needs are taken care of are then free to focus their energy on growing, learning, and maturing.
Sometimes, though, this gets reversed.
Instead of giving to their child, the parent takes from them. In this role reversal, the parent may relegate duties to the child. At other times, the child voluntarily takes them on.
Either way, the child learns that taking over the duties of the parent is the way to maintain closeness to them.
Children are pretty resilient. We’ve already said that some level of responsibility can help a child’s development — but 2020 research takes things further. The researchers suggest that sometimes, parentification can actually give a child feelings of self-efficacy, competence, and other positive benefits.
It seems that when a child feels positively about the person they’re caring for and the responsibilities that come with the role of caregiver, the child develops a positive self-image and feelings of self-worth. (Note that this isn’t a reason to pursue or justify parentification.)
Not all parents are able to take care of their children’s physical and emotional needs. In some families, the child takes over the role of caregiver in order to keep the family functioning as a whole.
Parentification can happen when a parent has a physical or emotional impairment, such as the following:
- The parent was neglected or abused as a child.
- The parent has a mental health condition.
- The parent has an alcohol or substance use disorder.
- The parent or a sibling is disabled or has a serious medical condition.
Parentification can also happen when life throws curveballs, like:
- The parents are divorced or one parent has died.
- The parents are immigrants and have difficulty integrating into society.
- The family experiences financial hardship.
There are two types of parentification: instrumental and emotional.
Instrumental parentification happens when parents assign their child responsibilities that aren’t age appropriate.
This could mean tasks like weekly grocery shopping, paying bills, cooking meals for the family, or taking care of a sick sibling.
However, keep in mind that having your 10-year-old kid wash the breakfast dishes doesn’t mean that you’re engaging in instrumental parentification — you’re building their belief in their own abilities in an age-appropriate (and helpful!) way.
Emotional parentification happens when a child moves in to fulfill specific emotional needs of the parent. The child is expected to figure out the emotional needs of the parent, to respond to the need, and to provide support.
Think of a child who cries because their parent forgot their birthday. Instead of trying to comfort the child, the parent rants about the stress in their life that doesn’t give them room to think. The child responds by stifling their pain and trying to support their parent.
Emotional parentification often comes along with instrumental parentification. It can be more destructive for a child’s development than instrumental parentification.
Sometimes, parentification is sibling-focused. This means that a child becomes the primary caregiver for a sibling who is sick or disabled.
For example, this can happen when a child cares for a sibling with autism spectrum disorder (ASD) or when a sibling is chronically ill.
A 2016 study found that parent-focused parentification is more likely to lead to stress. Sibling-focused parentification may include stress as well, but it can also include benefits of building a positive sibling relationship.
When a child is parentified, different levels of hurt develop depending on the degree of parentification.
Some possible symptoms in a younger child include:
- Stress and anxiety. Constant responsibility beyond what a child is capable of coping with can lead to stress and anxiety.
- Physical symptoms. A child may complain of stomachaches or headaches that don’t have a known source.
- Disruptive behavior. Aggressive behavior, academic difficulty, and social challenges may show up.
- Curtailed development. Children may be reluctant to take part in the kind of activities their peers engage in, and may not even enjoy playing around.
As a teenager, symptoms may show up as:
- Inability to connect to their own feelings. A parentified child learns to ignore their own feelings. They figure out that if they want to feel close to their parent, they have to take over adult tasks. By putting the parent’s needs above their own, a teen loses the ability to put their feelings into words.
- Self-blame and guilt. With no one on hand to validate their feelings, a parentified teen may engage in self-blame and self-doubt.
- Loss of childhood. A sense of having lost out on their childhood can lead to feelings of anger and depression.
- Substance use. Teens may learn to self-medicate in an effort to dull the unpleasant emotions they feel.
Adults who were parentified as children may want to know how this is affecting their lives. Let’s look at the challenges and then at the benefits.
Building your relationship with a primary caregiver is a key task in child development. This is known as attachment.
Secure attachment with a caregiver gives a child a sense of security, well-being, and self-esteem. A positive relationship also provides an internal working model for future relationships.
Parentification can lead to insecure attachment and this, in turn, can negatively affect future relationships.
As an adult, a parentified child may have challenges trusting others and prefer to be self-reliant. They may engage in unhealthy relationships and assume a caregiving role even when they don’t want to because this is the role that they know how to play. They may worry about being abandoned.
It may affect parenting skills and make parents less responsive to their children’s needs. This, in turn, makes children less compliant toddlers. Adults who were parentified may try to compensate for their childhood losses by having their own children fill their emotional needs.
Physical and mental health
According to a 2018 study, having adverse childhood experiences increases the likelihood that you’ll develop both mental and physical health issues.
Parentification may have its benefits, though of course these represent a silver lining rather than a justification.
For example, if you were parentified as a child and perceived the relationship as positive — and if your efforts were rewarded in some way — you may find that being a caregiver has given you an extra dose of empathy that helps you build strong relationships.
You may have a good sense of who you are and what your strengths are. And if you cared for your sibling, you may have a friend and special closeness for life.
Given that parentification can be intergenerational, what can you do to break the pattern?
The first step is awareness. Isn’t it so much easier and comfortable to just follow patterns that may be ingrained inside us? Kudos for acknowledging the need to change.
The second step is defining the borders. Who is responsible for what? It’s fine for your child to help out in the house and to look after their siblings, but the responsibility should not impact your child’s physical and mental health, their school work, or their social relationships.
It’s also fine for your child to see you sad or upset. You can speak about your feelings and this will even help your child get in touch with their own emotions. But your child should not feel responsible for your feelings.
You’re ready to heal and move forward, but not every parentified child needs treatment. Remember those benefits?
But if you’re experiencing anxiety or depression, you may want to reach out to a mental health professional. Cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT) can help you to change your thought patterns and your feelings about yourself.
Try getting in touch with your inner child — the child you once were. By listening to that young voice inside you, you can give to your inner child the things that you didn’t get in your past.
These exercises may help:
- Keep a photo of yourself as a child handy and look at it.
- Speak to your inner child as you’d speak to a friend. Formulate a dialogue.
- Write a letter to your inner child.
Parentification goes counter to the parent-child roles we typically expect. This role reversal can have both short-term and long-term consequences that may be painful, but help is available through mental health professionals and support groups.
At the same time, if you were parentified as a child, take heart that it may have also given you an unintended opportunity to develop the qualities that you value the most in yourself, such as empathy and compassion.